As I've said, it is quite possible to make charts
of the structure of stories. There are three simple basic structures,
and Heinlein has used them all.
The very simplest is the straight line. In this, a problem is set
and then resolved, and the process of resolution carries the characters
a distance away from the original situation. There are two variants.
first version can be illustrated by
The Rolling Stones.
It is an episodic story
with an open end. The problem is one of itchy feet, so Heinlein sets
his people wandering. The resolution is made when, after a number
of episodes, they accept travel and exploration as a way of life.
The ending is not a resting point, but an arrow pointing onward.
is an example
of the second version. The problem is begun by the landing of parasitic
slugs, and is solved by their extermination. The characters have
moved from Point A to Point B, and no infinite series of points is implied.
second structure is the spiral. In
this case there is movement again from Point A to Point B, but the points
are related. For instance,
Tunnel in the Sky
begins with a
boy watching and envying a wagon train guide leading a band of settlers
out to start a colony on a new world. It ends with the boy a wagon
train guide leading another band of settlers in a scene that is a direct
replay of the opening scene. A more complicated example is
Oscar Gordon, the hero, is dissatisfied with life here-and-now.
He goes out to find adventure and comes back when the adventure is over
to find himself still dissatisfied. In this case, a continuing series
of spirals is implied, a series of adventures with stops back at home base
last structure is the circle. In this
one, Point A and Point B are identical. The archetype of this might
be the fairy tale in which the protagonist is granted three wishes which
he uses badly. The end of the story finds him back in the rude hut
from which he started. The structure is used in
Have Space Suit--Will Travel,
and it may be one of the things responsible for its fairy tale
mood. It might seem at first glance that this is a spiral since the
hero comes back from his adventures a wiser, more competent fellow, but
it isn't. He comes back to exactly the same point he left, to pick
up his life where he left it, back in the drugstore mixing malted milks.
can be complicated greatly by various narrative techniques -- flashbacks,
multiple protagonists, multiple plots, and the like. Generally, however,
Heinlein hasn't used them. He has always told his stories in the
most straightforward possible manner (and I include "By His Bootstraps"
and " 'All You Zombies--' "). The one exception that occurs to me
which is not related in order. Heinlein
has always stuck to one point of view and one protagonist, and any
along these lines (Beyond This Horizon,
for instance) has been mild.
words "romance" and
"realism" are very slippery things to take hold of, and will be just as
long as we can call Tennessee Williams both a realist and a romantic and
mean something by the terms. The dictionary doesn't help greatly,
"A tendency to face facts and be practical
rather than imaginary or visionary; the attempted picturing of people and
things as they really are."
"A fictitious tale of wonderful
and extraordinary events, characterized by much imagination and idealization;
a type of novel with emphasis on love, adventure, etc." Where does
a practical, fact-facing story about wonderful and extraordinary events?
I can't propose a crisp, satisfactory and exhaustive
definition of either word, but I can think of different things that I mean
by the words:
seems to me that any story
that could be described by a preponderance of words from one list could
then be labeled either romantic or realistic. Let's take an example, a
Saturday Evening Post
story that I remember from the days when I combed old stacks of the
for no reason that I can think of,
except perhaps that at thirteen I found them entertaining. In this
story, a jealous and protective father and his pretty young daughter live
near an airbase. The protagonist is an airman who persuades the daughter
to go to a dance with him against her father's wishes. However, they
don't get back home on time and the father suspects the worst. When
they do arrive, they say they had an auto breakdown on the way home.
The father doesn't believe this for a moment and kicks the airman off his
place. But then he has second thoughts: the airman was oil
top-to-bottom and there wasn't a single paw print on daughter's white party
dress. A happy ending follows, the airman being admitted to be a
first-class citizen and daughter being allowed to go out with him again.
Stretching a point, this situation is life-as-experienced and prosaic.
The treatment of the situation, however, is emotional, simple, implausible
and clichéd. The situation, then, is realistic, after a
The treatment is romantic.
the same way, it
seems to me that all speculative fiction is bound to be romantic in
Science fiction stories are seldom life-as-experienced, seldom prosaic.
Some may be closer to what we know or think to be true, or closer to us
in space or time than others, and hence more realistic, but this is a relative
thing. For a non-reader of science fiction, what is there to choose
from between the situation of
The Dragon in the Sea
and that of
The Weapon Shops of Isher,
between "The Cold Equations" and Captain Future,
The Enemy Stars
The Dying Earth?
To regular readers of
science fiction, there is a difference, but to an outside observer all
of these situations are likely to seem equally strange. It seems
to me, then, that within science fiction any major distinction between
romantic and realistic stories has to be made in terms of treatment.
situations are sometimes more romantic than their science fictional nature
requires. Take, for example, two of Heinlein's accounts of the first
trip to the Moon. In one case,
Rocket Ship Galileo,
has three boys and a scientist hop off to the Moon in the scientist's private
spaceship. In the other, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," the first trip
to the Moon is financed by an extinct animal, the old-fashioned entrepreneur
of the Carnegie-Rockefeller variety. These situations are thoroughly
romantic, and just as romantic are the situations of
(seven men and super-science throw out a PanAsian invader),
to impersonate the Supreme Minister of the Solar System), and
(needed, a Hero), just to name three.
the other hand, Heinlein's
attitude toward his material is with little exception overwhelmingly
It is prosaic, plausible, complex, critical, unsentimental, and
More important, however, to his realism is the fact that Heinlein's treatments
are intellectual rather than emotional. Arthur Jean Cox has pointed
out that Heinlein's stories have more warmth than passion, and this is
one aspect of Heinlein's intellectualism. Heinlein's characters seldom
become angry, seldom become excited, seldom cry, feel despair or elation.
Like Heinlein they are interested in facts and in knowing how things work;
passion would only be an intrusion in their lives.
example of this intellectualization
can be seen in Heinlein's use of one of the ideas that he lent Theodore
Sturgeon in a dry period, the idea that the reading of news may be a cause
of mental illness. Heinlein's use is non-dramatic, factual, and
Jubal Harshaw of
Stranger in a Strange Land
tells one of his secretaries
to make a note of the idea so that Harshaw can write an article on the
cause of neurosis. Sturgeon's use of the idea in the short story
"And Now the News. . .," on the other hand, is dramatic, personal and
he is concerned with one man driven insane by a compulsion to identify
with other people's troubles. The difference is in attitude.
Heinlein's attitude is intellectual, Sturgeon's emotional, and in the same
way, Heinlein's stories are always interesting but seldom, if ever, moving.
An added factor in Heinlein's realism is his constant
seriousness of purpose. There is no comedy in his stories, or even
levity, only a smattering of satire, and very little in the way of pure
adventure. Heinlein picks serious problems to write about and solves
them as directly as he can.
On balance, then, I would call Heinlein a realist.
His situations are romantic, but the difference between a romantic science
fiction situation and a realistic one is comparative, and Heinlein's realism
in treatment is so pervasive and so marked as to put him definitely in
the realistic column.
Note: The print edition of
Heinlein in Dimension
is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690
$17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback. I charge for shipping
and handling, Advent doesn't.
For those who may be interested,
the circumstances surrounding the writing of this book are described elsewhere
at this site, in
The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.
Border courtesy of
The Humble Bee